Formed in 1987 at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana by guitarist Rick Valentin and bassist Rose Marshack, Poster Children have sifted through almost as many styles of post-punk guitar rock as they have drummers (seven at last count, as Junior Citizen‘s Howie Kantoff left in 2001).
Toreador Squat is a raw, basic, set-length cassette for admirers of the band’s live shows. The bass is mushed into the guitar, which in turn drenches the voice; the drums are machine-gun popcorn underneath. The writing is slightly influenced by late-’70s Britwave (a smidge of Buzzcocks here, a dab of Jam), plus a soupçon of the poppier side of Television, but those are all influences, not derivations.
Recording as a trio with producer Iain Burgess in 1988, Poster Children tried on various guises, from “Non-Reggae Song,” which parodies Joe Jackson in his ska phase, to the John Lydonisms of “Modern Art.” A few months later, with Steve Albini as engineer, they conjured up a Dinosaur Jr- style guitar hurricane with muffled, deadpan vocals. The tracks from both sessions are collected on Flower Plower. Not surprisingly, the album displays two different approaches. The earlier sessions are more or less straightforward songs; the later tracks have a more fragmented, impression-oriented effect which stretches words out over the thundering music. Both work, and though neither is fully realized, guitar-sound lovers will enjoy this even before the songs start to kick in. The CD and cassette reissue have seven worthwhile bonus tracks.
Albini produced all of Daisychain Reaction, a darker album with cleaner sound, despite the presence of a second guitarist (Jeff Dimpsey, on loan from Hum). While the cute tunes of the previous album are gone, a taste of their feel is retained. The songs are a little more ponderous, selfconscious and emotional; more complex rhythms and counter-rhythms are integrated. A new mastery of dynamics — soft-to-loud, slow-to-fast and back again — is evident in the rudely titled “If You See Kay,” where it especially complements Valentin’s psychotic vocals. “Space Gun” and “Chain Reaction” explore a spacier, neo-psychedelic guitar sound, and the more spacious arrangements and oddball tempos give Bob Rising, one of a string of good to excellent drummers, plenty of room to swing.
Tool of the Man, a sarcastic acknowledgement of the band’s arrival in the major-label world, brings in another drumming dynamo, Johnny Machine, and a permanent second guitarist, Jim Valentin (Rick’s brother). Far from acting like tools of the man, Poster Children opt for an even less homogenized approach: sugar-free rockers mixed with knottier, more experimental mood pieces. “Redline,” “Three Bullets” and “In My Way” explore the quieter fringes of the band’s sound, while “Blatant Dis” hums along on taut guitars, which uncoil into a spaced- out midsection, before regaining their galvanizing stride.
With the graphically matched Just Like You and Junior Citizen, both produced by Brian Anderson at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, Poster Children dabble in disco and the most straight-forward pop tunes of their career. The six-song Just Like You introduces a touch of bombast missing from the band’s previously self- effacing records, as well as keyboards and samplers. Valentin declares “I’m sick of it all” and “I’m not like you” with increasing agitation and more than a touch of sarcasm, as though kissing off the band’s past. On Junior Citizen, Valentin’s vocals have never been more pronounced, the rhythms never more insistent (or rigid), the tunes never punchier or more melodic. Keyboards encourage a richer, more varied sound, by turns brighter and stranger. The title track works as a double-edged commentary on Generation X self-pity and self-doubt, and forces a reassessment of a band that heretofore had seemed a likable but unremarkable example of underground earnestness.
Salaryman is the group’s electronic alter-ego.